The politics of Osborne's public sector job cull

Why the Tories believe that cutting public sector jobs will help them win.

Few noticed it but buried deep in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest set of forecasts was the revelation that another 20,000 government jobs will be cut by 2017, bringing the total to 730,000.

It’s often said that George Osborne’s cuts have barely begun but that doesn’t apply to to public sector employment. Since Osborne entered the Treasury, 350,000 government jobs have been scrapped, with another 460,000 due to go by 2017 [the 730,000 figure refers to cuts from 2011-2017]. The public sector workforce is now at its smallest level since 2003 [see graph]. In the words of the usually restrained Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development we are witnessing “a tectonic shift in the underlying structure of the labour market”.

A
By 2017 the number of public sector workers will have declined from a peak of 6.3m in 2009 to 4.9m, the lowest level since comparable records began in 1999. What explains this dramatic cull? Fiscal considerations, naturally, play their part. The deficit is forecast to be £126bn this year [£10bn higher than originally expected] and Osborne wrongly believes that slashing the state is the best way to reduce it. In an inversion of Keynes, he thinks that if you take care of the deficit, unemployment will take care of itself. But Osborne, who is both Chancellor and the Tories’ chief electoral strategist, also has political considerations in mind. The Spectator’s James Forsyth quotes one senior Conservative thus: “You create a bigger private sector, you create more Tories.”

The polls certainly suggest as much. Data from Ipsos MORI shows that while Labour enjoys a 28-point lead among public sector workers, it trails the Tories by six points among their private sector counterparts [see graph].

Logic says that if you reduce the former group and expand the latter [the OBR forecasts an extra 1.7 million private sector workers by 2017] , the Tories will benefit. A smaller public sector means fewer people with a vested interest in high levels of state spending. Even if the private sector fails to pick up the slack, studies show that the unemployed are among the least likely groups to vote. Putting Labour voters on the dole is win-win for the Tories. Osborne may claim that his cuts are born of necessity, rather than ideology, but be in no doubt about the political nature of his project.

George Osborne plans to cut 730,000 public sector jobs between 2011 and 2017. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.